Although described by some as a remake of Richard Fleischer's The Vikings, the 1958 saga of two men who battle for a kingdom while completely in the dark about their own brotherly blood ties, the writers of Erik the Conqueror took a more stylized approach, playing up the irony by adding twin blonde babes (played by the Kessler twins) to confuse the heroes during moments of secretive confidence; contrasting the regal, imperial Britain with an almost primordial, cult-laden Viking kingdom; and having the brothers become kingly rivals after a sniveling British despot-in-the-waiting murders their father when the brothers where mere children.
Unlike Mario Bava's Hercules in the Haunted World, Erik has a much deeper story, plus two strong romantic couples whose destinies constantly veer into near-tragic terrain. Bava's third film as director – after Black Sunday and Haunted World – also benefits from a briskly told narrative which flips between to kinetic destinies that ultimately collide for an exciting combat sequence, a castle scaling, and a battle where the villain gets what he deserves.
Erik is also free from the deadly, aimless wandering sequences that plagued Haunted World, with its silly danger scenarios, and painful comic relief from a grating sidekick. (That character was somewhat ported over and revamped into a smaller-scaled sidekick here. Again performed by Franco Giacobini, his scenes were later trimmed down by AIP for the film's U.S. release.)
Bava directed his little no-budget Viking epic with extraordinary panache, and crafted a perfectly realized comic book adventure which predates the zenith of his kinetic comic book action films, Danger: Diabolik (1968). Fans of that film will giggle with delight when they see Bava's exceptional widescreen compositions in Erik, often resembling graphic panels that burst to life whenever fireballs smother the frame, horses race above the camera, character fights stretch across the Dyaliscope ratio, and the set designs and brilliant pastel colours that glow under Bava's red-green-amber lighting schemes.
Author and Bava biographer Tim Lucas provides an engaging commentary track, and he digs deep into film facts, career info, and offers concise bio sketches on the actors, many of whom had already appeared in prior films directed by or photographed by Bava, or in some of the director's later films.
Lucas also includes excerpts from an audio interview with star Cameron Mitchell in which the actor describes his working relationship with Bava, and as an added bonus, the DVD includes a meaty 28 min. distillation of Lucas' two interview sessions from January 23, 1989, in a separate gallery.
In addition to some wonderfully candid comments on a director Cameron regarded more as a cinema magician, there's a recollection of an aborted Ingmar Bergman production of Hermann Hesse's Siddhartha which fell through when, according to Cameron, Bergman felt his own style would affect any attempt to remain faithful to Hesse 's work. The book was eventually filmed in 1972 by director Conrad Rooks, with Bergman's longtime cinematographer, Sven Nykvist, behind the camera.)
Examples of Bava's near-flawless cinematic trickery fill almost every shot, since the director also painted the matte shots, supervised the effects sequences (the brother-against-brother combat is an amazing example of how to edit simple trick shots with good fight choreography), and often crafted whole battle scenes out of nothing. A famous example is the ship battle that ultimately has both brothers ramming their crafts – a sequence largely done in a studio using el cheapo sets partially fabricated out of pasta.
In no way is Erik historically accurate, and the lack of fidelity to real figures, locations and events gave Bava and co-writer Oreste Biancoli the freedom to indulge in some outlandish kitsch, including meting out punishment to a pair of doomed lovers – shown tethered together with barbed wire on a giant cart (a leftover prop from Haunted World). Their death by vultures is never seen, but we do get a kooky dance sequence that introduces a bevy of Viking blondes, and the brothers' future girlfriends, Daya and Rama (played by ex-East German patriots Alice and Ellen Kessler in their western film debut).
Prancing in pastel costumes with shiny swords, the sacrificial dance occurs in front of a giant tree trunk (also leftover from Haunted World), and is underscored by a loopy, orchestral piece by Roberto Nicolosi (a fine underrated composer who also scored Haunted World and Black Sunday).
Alongside production facts, Lucas also provides some important comparative details between the uncut Italian version and the AIP version, which changed the names of characters in the English dubbing, and replaced part of Nicolosi's score with music by Les Baxter, AIP's in-house composer who rescored a many of Bava's films that were tweaked by the indie U.S. distributor during the early and mid-sixties.
Presented with English and Italian dub tracks (the latter offers superior audio fidelity, although the English track has differing music volume levels), Erik is a bit of a lost gem that's been beautifully transferred to DVD from a crisp and uncut print (restoring moments of shocking violence as well, as in the graphic massacre that kick-starts the film), and starkly demonstrates why this director's work – particularly his historical fantasy epics – are still highly regarded by fans and contemporary filmmakers; in terms of pacing, editing, and cinematographic compositions, Bava's fantasy work is truly inspiring.
This Region 1 DVD also includes a stills gallery, Bava bio notes, and an English and German trailer. (The latter is also present on a 2006 German Region 2 DVD, which is unique for containing a 50 min. bio-doc, Mario Bava enthullt die magie seiner werke, detailed in Tim Lucas' blog HERE.)
Made in 1963, Bava's other films that year include La Ragazza che sapeva troppo / The Girl Who Knew Too Much (aka The Evil Eye), I Tre volti della paura / Black Sabbath, and the loopy La Frusta e il corpo / The Whip and the Body.
Cameron Mitchell's strong performance immersed the American actor in a spate of historical actioners which include I Normanni / Conquest of the Normans (1962), Il Duca negro / The Black Duke and Dulcinea / Girl from La Mancha (both 1963). Mitchell's other films for Bava include I Coltelli del vendicatore / Knives of the Avenger (1966), and the giallo classique, Sei donne per l'assassino / Blood and Black Lace (1964).
Unlike prior titles in Vol. 1 and 2 of Anchor Bay's/Starz Home Entertainment's Mario Bava boxed collections, this title is currently available as a separately release.
© 2007 Mark R. Hasan